The News (Lagos)

19 July 2004

Nigeria: Soyinka is an Enigma


To many people, Prof. Wole Soyinka means many things. In this interview with Ernest Omoarelojie, Prof. Femi Osofisan describes him as somebody you know and you don't know. Excerpts:

At 70, Prof. Wole Soyinka is still waxing stronger. As someone you know what are those things that make him so untiring?

I wish I knew. It is a mystery how he finds the energy, the fertility; that extra- ordinary and prodigeous energy to carry on. Only he can tell. He is extremely gifted and constantly churning out his works. That makes us happy because it is a good thing. It is a challenge to us who are younger. For somebody at that age to be this productive, we have no excuse at all not to be productive. But truly, I don't know the secret behind his prodigious energy and drive.

You are about the closest to him in terms of the number of works. What assessment of him do we get from this closeness?

Prof. Soyinka, as we all know is a playwright and is also a human being. As a playwright, he is not just prolific, he is also ingenious. There are people who are prolific but produce rubbish. His works speak of the highest standard. Don't forget that he is more or less a pioneer in the genre in the creation of what we now call the modern African drama.

Henshaw, himself and J.P. clark were the earliest pioneers of the genre but he has been the most productive. And he is the most original too.

That is because he has tried to present the African metaphysics based on the Yoruba world view. He projected this in the positive rather the negative sense which the Christians and, to some extent, the Muslims tried to paint it. He has been able, through his works, among others, given us a profound insight into our culture. Now he is able to also dramatise that and bring to our consciousness that it is not paganism as many would want to see it but a different world-view that has its own logic and is humane.

Through him, we are able to understand a vast repertoire of what our culture has to offer. It is a pity that not many of you have tried to read him and understand many of these things.

You know that with the advent of Christianity these days, a lot of it has been cast more as heresy. We however owe it to Soyinka for being able to provide a window of insight, illumination into what our culture really is or what makes us distinct as black Africans. Without his pioneering works, I don't think much of the works we have done would have existed.

Are the artistes,including Soyinka,well appreciated in this country?

Nowadays people do appreciate him but if you ask them that what has he written, very few would be able to tell you.

Even among the elite. That is not a good tribute to an icon. I am afraid we have not truly grasped what professor Soyinka represent.

Let me give you an instance. I was in Senegal a few weeks ago to open a house which the government built and donated to artists in that country. I was struck that the president himself was there in person. What was amazing is that he spoke about one of the books that has just been published.

It is written by a Senegalese who lives in France.I havent even read it but there we were and the president was discussing it. That tradition has been there since Senghor and it is not dying yet unlike here. We do not see art the way Soyinka or some of us know it to be the soul of the nation.

In that kind of environment, somebody like Soyinka would simply beat all imagination.

That he is what he has become in our environment says so much about the potential which he embodies.

How do you rate him as a playwright, director novelist, poet, etc. etc?

As a playwright, he is a leading figure in the entire world. We may not know because he is with us here. In the entire world, there is no one else writing with the erudiction, the sheer gift for words as Wole Soyinka. On the world stage, he is the leading playwright. As a director, I am afraid, he has not been that successful.

Again may be because he has not been as active as a director since he is somebody fighting on so many fronts.

He does not appear to have so much time to direct plays. He is effective but I don't think he is just as good as he is as a playwright. As an essayist, he is a master and of course there is no comparison between him and any other person when it comes to the usage of words for effect. He uses words with a telling effect. Yes he is an all-rounder because he is very successful in whatever he sets out to do. He is a genius, no doubt. The only thing I wouldn't say now is that he is the leading novelist right now. He is not the leading novelist in the world right now. As a poet, he can be very moving but I don't think that he has devoted as much time to poetry as he has done as a playwright. His achievement is not as substantial either.

What's your criticism of Soyinka as a writer?

I must say that in my younger days I was far more radical. So my criticism of him was very pungent then because you know I believe that literature was a weapon for social change with certain tool of advocacy. I mean I am talking about very direct advocacy without any ambiguity at all. But I noticed that his works tended to end with deep ambiguity and tragic note so, I was puzzled that a man who is an activist, perhaps one of the most fiery activists too, would now produce works that are replete with this kind of ambiguity-tragic climax and notes of despair. For me I rejected that and thought the plays should be more outspoken. But you know I have grown through this conflict since then and I have had various experiences since then. I have come to see more and more of human being, particularly in the last four years since I took up government service.

A lot of things have been revealed to me. So l'm less inclined to think that when it comes to human being, two and two would make four. I am less radical but more pragmatic now. I have been one of his critics but don't forget that it has been one of friendly kind of criticism. It was not that I rejected his works totally.

But I have become far more understanding and in fact very much in admiration of what he is trying to do.

What are we to expect from him or is he going to slow down?

Let me inform you that Soyinka is somebody you know and you don't know. He is enigmatic and I think he even enjoys that enigma.

He is there today and tomorrow he is not there. The only constant thing about him is his productivity. But I don't ever think that he will slow down. Remember that recently, he was part of the group that marched on the streets of Lagos. So he would still do what he knows how to do best. There is no doubt about that.

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